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Leadership and Uncertainty Management in Politics

Leaders, Followers and Constraints in Western Democracies


 Edited by Agnès Alexandre-Collier and François Vergniolle de Chantal


 Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Hardcover. xi+284 p. ISBN 9781137439239. £75


Reviewed by Emma Bell

Université de Savoie Mont-Blanc




This collected edition brings together contributions from leading scholars in American, British, German, French and Italian politics to offer a fresh comparative perspective on the neglected question of leadership strategies. Through a series of case studies, it aims to go beyond traditional analyses of individual leaders by focusing on the specific institutional, cultural and political frameworks in which they operate. This neo-institutionalist approach allows the authors to examine not just how political leaders interact with the electorate but also with their parties, the media and civil society. Some contributors even shift their focus from leaders themselves to analyse the role played by those around them, such as spouses/partners (Frame and Brachotte) or political staff (Coste). Whilst leaders may be constrained, and to some extent moulded, by external factors and actors, they are shown to play a highly active role, regardless of whether or not they may be regarded as what the editors describe as ‘game-changers’. Indeed, despite the diversity of themes and periods covered in the different chapters, all contributors tackle the essential question of how leaders actively grapple with risk and uncertainty.

Uncertainty in politics has several sources and manifestations. It may be prevalent in existing political institutions such as the US Senate and House of Representatives (Vergniolle de Chantal; Meyer) or in relatively new institutions such as the Scottish Government (Leydier). It may result from political opposition which can force leaders to adopt new practices: the UK’s David Cameron, for example, has accepted the practice of the referendum which became established under Labour governments from Harold Wilson through to Tony Blair. A considerable amount of political uncertainty can also result from intraparty conflict. Whilst this is often regarded as having a more significant influence on UK politics (Avril; Alexandre-Collier; Langlois; Tournier-Sol) due to the fact that the Prime Minister is more dependent than an elected president on his/her party’s support, it is also evident within the Republican movement in the US (Meyer; Godet). Furthermore, uncertainty can stem from the rivalry that may exist between different organisations purporting to represent the interests of different groups (Picard). A number of contributors also highlight the contextual uncertainty than results from external crises such as war (Schnapper; Heinemann) and, in the case of the UK, the thorny question of EU membership (Tournier-Sol; Alexandre-Collier). Yet, whilst uncertainty is generally regarded as emerging from sources external to the leadership, at times the leadership itself may be a source of uncertainty, particularly when a leader does not conform to what is traditionally expected of him/her, as in the case of Ronald Reagan (Coste).

The main focus of this volume is on the strategies used by different leaders to overcome these uncertainties. Many chapters highlight the importance of charismatic leadership in this respect. Whilst ordinariness can sometimes be regarded as a virtue in political leaders (such as in the case of Edward Heath), Langlois goes so far as to suggest that this may ultimately lead to their downfall. Indeed, she argues that the ability to be an ‘inspirer’ and ‘myth-maker’ is the sine qua non of successful leadership. Certainly, the most successful leaders discussed in this collection, whether assessed according to their capacity to hold on to power or to wield extensive political influence, are all highly charismatic. Blair lived up to Weber’s notion of charismatic authority (Schnapper), whilst Reagan, despite his manifest managerial incompetence, succeeded in inspiring the public and his staffers alike (Coste). Even more minor political leaders, such as Petra Kelly, the founder and first chair of the German Green Party, have shown themselves to be capable of inspiring both activists and ordinary people and thus exerting significant influence (Richter). Yet, the contributors to this volume highlight that charisma alone is not sufficient. As Avril points out, organisational structure is also very important. Even more important is the capacity of leaders to make effective use of the media to ensure that their political vision is successfully communicated.

Many contributors highlight the effective use made of the media by leaders as diverse as General De Gaulle (Heinemann), Petra Kelly (Richter), Tony Blair (Schnapper), Nicolas Sarkozy and Berlusconi (Bonnet). Yet, whilst the latter, ‘the caricature of the communicator’ (Bonnet), was particularly successful in using the television media to bolster his political power, he failed to adapt to the new digital media environment and was in any case constrained by institutional rules respecting pluralism in the Italian media. The importance of adapting to social media such as Twitter has not been lost on leaders such as Barak Obama and David Cameron and other contemporary leaders whose partners’ presence on such networks has often helped to favourably impact upon their own image (Frame & Brachotte).

Keeping on top of new media is certainly a good way for leaders to portray themselves as modernisers and to be seen to be connecting with their electorate and civil society more widely. Former Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, is an excellent example of a leader who managed to effectively portray himself as a moderniser, at the helm of a new Scottish Government. His popularity stemmed not just from his natural charisma but also from his ability to identify himself with the Scottish nation (Leydier), thus tapping into nationalist sentiment.

Leaders often appeal to nationalist sentiment and a sense of patriotism by involving themselves in international politics, promoting the international visibility of their nations. Margaret Thatcher seemed to understand this well, engaging British troops in the Falklands/Malvinas and relying on British diplomacy to contribute to ending the Cold War. Blair attempted to reassert Britain’s position on the international stage via his policy of liberal interventionism. Whilst success in military interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone might have initially strengthened Blair’s position both at home and abroad, the war in Iraq shows how even the most charismatic of leaders can be overcome by external events (Schnapper).

In analysing the various strategies deployed to overcome political certainty, the contributors to this volume focus primarily on the link between the agency of individual leaders and the framework in which they operate. Much attention is given to the political and social aspects of that framework. A couple of contributors (notably Bonnet, Frame and Brachotte) note the cultural differences which might explain divergent leadership styles, such as those which differentiate Protestant and Roman Catholic heritage. It would have been interesting to explore this aspect of the question further. The introductory and concluding chapters usefully draw out the common themes which characterise leadership strategies in the different nations studied but regrettably they do not highlight national differences or attempt to pinpoint what might explain these.

The volume is nonetheless a timely and valuable contribution to existing studies on leadership. The question of uncertainty is particularly relevant in the context of economic instability, global conflict and terrorism. Within Europe, growing insecurity and the refugee crisis are contributing to the rise of new forms of populism. Meanwhile, mainstream parties are tearing themselves apart over ideological differences (especially on the Left – one need only think of the Socialist Party in France) and even, in the case of the UK, over continued membership of the European Union. Only the most formidable of leaders can succeed in overcoming such uncertainty. Rather pessimistically, what the contributions to this volume reveal is that style and strategy will ultimately triumph over substance.


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